You probably know that it is illegal to trade in ivory and might even know that China is phasing out its ivory market. This is because elephant populations were (and still are) being poached for their ivory at high rates. To protect elephants from extinction ivory trade was fully banned in 1989. However, there was a one-time lift of the ban in 2008 that only allowed to sell ivory stocks from elephants that died naturally. These days the issue of whether to maintain the ban, and to what extent, is the subject of a very heated debate. It is currently proposed to list elephants under Appendix I of the CITES treaty, which offers the highest level of protection and would translate to no trade in the foreseeable future. At this point you are probably leaning towards either: “they should keep the ban on and protect the elephants because lifting the ban would be a death sentence to elephant species” or “shouldn’t they just legalize and regulate trade so they can monitor the population levels, and use the money to invest back in wildlife populations?”
Why should we lift the ban?
In a nutshell, because if a country is doing a good job with protecting its wildlife population it should be able to benefit from the ivory left behind naturally. To argue otherwise is to say that it is fine to punish the well performing countries for the behavior of the countries where elephant poaching is rampant. The money countries get from legal ivory trade can be invested back in conservation. Having more park rangers and fancier technological solutions that help regulate large parks, such as drones, requires resources. If the world is not sharing the costs of conservation with those countries, it should at least not interfere with their ability to profit from it. More importantly, the proponents are arguing that selling some amount of legal ivory will “quench the thirst” and reduce the amount of illegally traded ivory.
Why should the ban be maintained?
True, some countries are doing a commendable job of protecting their wildlife populations. The problem with having some ivory trade is that it will not be possible to discern between “clean” and “dirty” ivory. By having a legal system for ivory trade it will make it easy for wildlife poachers to launder illegal ivory into it. Verifying the source of traded ivory will likely prove to be impossible. This might create more demand for ivory, raise prices, increase the profitability from poaching elephants, etc. Summed up, this does not spell a positive scenario for elephant conservation.
If only we knew what happened after that 2008 one-time lift of the ban…
This is where it gets interesting. That 2008 lift of the ban allows us to test what happened to the number of illegally killed elephants. The proposed test is a simple one. We allowed legal ivory to flow into the marketplace, did we observe a decline or an increase in the poaching of elephants? While this sounds like an easy question to answer there is an active debate as to what is the correct answer. The two sides to the argument are captured in a PLOS ONE paper, by Underwood and Burn, arguing the ban had no meaningful effect on illegal killings, and an NBER Working Paper, by Hsiang and Sekar, arguing the exact opposite. This debate then shifted to blog posts (here, here, and most recently here) where each side is critiquing the statistical modeling methods the other party is using.
My take on this is that it is clear that the lifting of the ban led to a higher number of poached elephants. I am not truly objective here because the methods used by Hsiang and Sekar, which are well explained and demonstrated in their blog post, are the methods I use in my own work as well. Also, Sol Hsiang is an alum of my program so there is probably a part of me that just wants him to be right on this. The core reason I think Hsiang and Sekar are right is that their analysis is simple, clean, transparent, and most importantly imposes little structure on the data. The criticism by Underwood and Burn fails to understand their methods, and as result erroneously labels them as wrong. Additionally: (i) when you make it easy for people to cheat, as by laundering illegal ivory, they will take advantage of that, and (ii) the way Underwood and Burn clean and normalize the data is just blatantly wrong which makes it impossible for their analysis to detect the effect that Hsiang and Sekar find.
Elephant populations are declining
To make things worse, the status of wildlife elephant populations is deteriorating across Africa. While some countries are able to protect their elephants many are not, and on net this results in an estimated average decline of about 8% per-year. You can explore more of the census data and learn about the findings by visiting the census website. This is a very live debate with direct policy implications, not only on elephants conservation. Legal rhino horn trade is also suggested as a means to curb the illegal poaching of rhinos.
The CITES Conference of the Parties is about to take place between September 24th to October 5th. I hope elephants get listed on Appendix I and that Hsiang and Sekar will not need to write a follow up paper documenting yet another spike in illegally killed elephants.